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My 10-year-old son has Autism Spectrum Disorder (has has what used to be called Asperger's with touches of high-functioning Autism). He goes to a mainstream school. in fact, he's been to several. He's hated most of them. One of the reasons we first sought help that eventually led to his diagnosis was his lack of social skills. Or rather, his misunderstood social skills. When he was really little and I would take him and his older sister to play barn type places, she would run off and make friends and bounce from activity to activity. He would find the quietest spot, turn his back on everyone and focus on one specific thing. Often the little tea cup and saucer chair. If another child approached, he would simply turn away from them.
When he went to school, he would talk AT the other children and do things they thought were strange. He started to want to get friends at about 6, but he would get things wrong with them and they'd dump him. He didn't seem to understand the rules - the unwritten rules - of the playground.
It was some extreme behaviour that led to us seeking help, but his trouble making and keeping friends made him very sad. After a frustrating and upsetting two-year process, we got the diagnosis of ASD. And it became obvious why he didn't make friends. We helped as much as we could, but he was pretty lonely and troubled.
Fast forward to now. Yesterday, he had a multiple person chat that made him laugh out loud. The day before, he and his friends finished making a huge structure they've spent weeks planning and collaborating on. His cousin got in touch to check in and they talked for a while. About nothing in particular. He and his friend are both saving up for Raspberry Pis to work on together. He designs games and another friend comes up with the characters' details and motivations.
What's changed? Not him. He's still puzzled by expressions, only knows I'm sad if he can see tears coming out of my eyes, and yells in people's faces when he's talking about stuff he knows about (and he knows about a lot of stuff - when ASD kids like stuff they REALLY like it).
what's changed? Tech. He has an Xbox with Xbox live. He has a headset with a microphone and joins the other boys from school to make stuff in Minecraft. They all yell over each other and he doesn't stand out. He and his cousin text each other on their mobile phones, and he makes games and gives them to the other boys to try - and they're impressed by them and this has boosted his social standing. It all started with Minecraft. Then the friendships were cemented. He could shine in this domain, and he could understand what people were saying because they spelt it out on text messages rather than body language. "You annoyed me today because..." he gets to put stuff right. And he's not lonely.
Children on the autistic spectrum – among other symptoms, depending on where they land – often have trouble with social interactions, failing to pick up on body language and the like. We're always bemoaning the effect social media has on how we talk to each other nowadays, but for those on the spectrum, it can be a blessing.
One particularly striking example was the mooted plan for the Social Blindness app (which sadly failed to reach its full funding on Kickstarter. The basic idea behind the project was to provide exercises to help those with Autism Spectrum Disorder to pick up on body language and social cues.
More generally, though, socialising through a computer screen is actually a lot easier of autistic children. Apparently, whilst a human face isn't so much of a draw for them, technology often can be; building up confidence by talking to people online isn't anything to be sniffed at, and often those lessons can be translated in the real world.
Plus so many jobs will be tech-based before too long, and so spending more time at the computers is both confidence and talent-building; especially when those with autism or Asperger's excel in those roles.
I have trialled Minecraft in school and would agree with the facts that a group of boys in particular with social/peer difficulties, grew in stature with many of their peers as they engaged with the programme and helped each other build virtual worlds. KODU and Scratch are other good mediums for this kind of collaboration .